By Dr. Gary Edwards
Chief Customer Officer, Mindshare Technologies
I recently bought a new house, a purchase that of course has been accompanied by several trips to home improvement retailers. Despite going to the same retailer, each trip was dramatically different.
During one of my first stops, I asked an associate where to find a certain item. He pointed in a general direction and gave me the aisle number, and I went on my way, only to end up more lost than when I started.
At the same store on a later date, I asked a different associate the same question for a different item. She promptly walked me across the entire store and led me exactly to it. It was completely unexpected, and I was amazed by her willingness to go the extra mile (or at least 50 steps).
It's experiences like these that underscore how incredibly low the bar is in retail customer service. We only expect associates to tell us where to go to find an item (and sometimes not even that!), and when they go above and beyond and add a personal touch we are delighted. It's illustrative of the sad state of affairs in retail, where fulfilling even the most basic aspects of customer service are a cause for celebration.
The retail experience for customers today is always a roll of the dice. The customer doesn't know in advance what kind of employee they'll come across when they need assistance — one more than happy to help out, or one too engaged in their current task to look up (if the customer can even manage to find one at all).
In my opinion, there are two key contributing factors to this inconsistent customer experience.
Overemphasis on value: Because consumers are so empowered and price-conscious today, retailers have slashed prices to drive shoppers into their stores. The endless parade of deals and discounts are all offered under the banner of providing real value to customers by allowing their dollar to stretch a little further. This pursuit to the bottom, however, neglects the service component once customers are inside. It's not enough to have one designated employee in charge of "being friendly and helpful" as shoppers enter. This desire to help should be instilled in every worker.
Overemphasis on efficiency: Associates are trained to maximize efficiency in all aspects of their work: to stock shelves as quickly as possible, funnel a steady stream of customers through the cash register, and so on. An unintended but frequent outcome of this approach is that the customer's needs take a backseat. The associate can almost view the customer as a conflict of interest: "If I have to help you, I'll be distracted from finishing mopping the floor before my break." When the associate makes the customer feel welcome, that makes a difference by contributing to a positive emotional memory that the customer will recall next time they're considering where to shop.
Retailers would do well to borrow from hotels' playbook. At every Marriott or Holiday Inn, the staff, ranging from maintenance, to housekeeping, to the concierge desk, have all been trained to reach out and connect with guests. They make a human effort to make the guest feel welcome. Retail would be wise to follow in hospitality's footsteps and adopt a similar industry best practice.
Asking associates to make helping customers their top priority does not require a sacrifice in efficiency, a sweeping change in training programs or an adjustment to a labor forecast model. Transforming culture simply requires a shift in focus, where friendliness and helpfulness are emphasized as much as productivity and efficiency. Invite frontline employees to enjoy the "distraction" of helping customers out.
It is the industry's responsibility to make sure customers are not just getting better prices, but better service as well. In this era of the empowered customer, I hope that we'll see more of these basic service standards return to retail establishments. My house, for one, would certainly benefit from it.
Gary Edwards, Ph.D., has led worldwide and domestic research on customer and employee behavior for more than 20 years. He oversees the marketing insights department and sales organization at Mindshare Technologies with a focus on influencing client strategy and customer relations. (Photo by Memphis CVB.)